Processed Foods Aren't Killing You—Hyper-Processed Foods Are

“Processed food” is a category I’ve historically filed alongside alcohol and gluten under “things I know I’m not supposed to eat but do anyway.” I know this sounds nuts, but for years, I found nothing intrinsically terrifying about eating a frozen curry bowl for dinner, followed by two soft-baked Chips Ahoy! cookies that tasted chewy and delicious, despite having been in my cupboard since 2009. I never thought about what it took to make these foods possible. Why ruin the illusion? They miraculously eliminated the need to cook. Plus, 400 “processed” calories had to be better than 1000 nonprocessed ones, right? 

This was my mindset until late last year, when I listened to a podcast that cracked my blissful ignorance about processed food wide open. The episode, called "War & Pizza" from 99% Invisible, reported that the technology behind the “instant” foods many of us busy modern people depend on—boxed cereals, granola bars, TV dinners (even the fancy $7 ones)—was first introduced in the 1950s. After World War II, the U.S. government realized it needed a better way to preserve soldiers’ rations while they were at war, without access to refrigerators and cooking equipment.

So, after some time in the lab, shelf-stable, no-cook meals were born. Eventually, they made their way into American kitchens—“thanks to Madison Avenue marketing and suggestions that housewives were too busy to cook,” explains certified nutritionist Dana James. “Anyone remember processed mashed potatoes? My grandma used to make them—just add milk, and voilà! Processed food has grown steadily since then.”

The idea of eating what was essentially glorified military food made the hairs on the back of my neck stick straight up. Of course cookies and pizza weren’t supposed to taste soft and scrumptious after lying around for half a decade. These foods weren’t invented with regular people in mind.

So I vowed to swear off processed foods forever. That is, until I realized that bread, pasta, almond milk, frozen fruit, and many other healthy staples of my diet are technically processed

This made me wonder: Are TV dinners and Cheetos “processed” in the same way fresh-baked bread and tofu are? And what effects do these types of processing have on our bodies? Do I need to give up processed food altogether to be healthy?

To get answers, I spoke to four top nutrition experts. For the end-all, be-all truth about processed foods, keep scrolling.

Have you ever tried cutting hyper-processed foods out of your diet? Tell us about it in the comments below!